Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories

Suspicious Minds: Why We Believe Conspiracy Theories by Rob Brotherton is a tempting title but the book was not about who really shot JFK, or if the US government is secretly hiding space aliens at Area 51. Brotherton makes it clear from the start that his book is an investigation into the minds of those who believe such theories. His premise is that everyone believes some kind of conspiracy theory, and he refutes the claims that they are only the domain of paranoid dropouts. We all have our own prejudices for believing what we do, and to harbour doubts or suspicions about anything–not only outlandish claims that 9/11 was an inside job–is in effect a belief in a kind of conspiracy.

Brotherton asserts that the Internet age has seen conspiracy theories multiply. People can go on-line and find answers instantly, yet they can also raise their suspicions in an open forum. Our need for immediate answers encourages conspiracies to develop because the complete and “official” answers often take days or weeks to come out. Look at any coroner’s report: these reports require weeks to compile because of all the testing that must be conducted. After Prince died, the Internet was abuzz with Prince suicide and murder conspiracies. A conclusive toxicology report cannot beat the conspiracy theories on-line. When a beloved musician dies so unexpectedly, we cannot accept the truth at first, and need someone to blame. A murder or a suicide could explain the tragedy of Prince’s untimely death. It would be hard to accept but it would provide an immediate answer. It would be harder to accept the patience that would be required for a coroner to undertake a full toxicology report. We want our answers now, and complete and “official” answers are never like that. Once we have sated our immediate need for an answer with incomplete or conspiratorial evidence, we lie in wait for the “official” explanation, ready to pounce on it with accusations of “What took you so long?”. The tangled web they were weaving in delaying the “official” explanation…

The essence of a conspiracy is a vicious circle. It is almost impossible to convince a conspiracist to change his way of thinking. Once the seed has been planted, it must become a tree, and it cannot be weeded out. Have you ever watched a talk show with a panel of conspiracists and skeptics? It’s a show of nonstop arguing, because:

“Conspiracy theories are constructed around an unassailable, irrefutable logic, according to which absolutely nothing can disprove the conspiracy–even evidence to the contrary.”


“Since conspiracy theories are inherently unproven, the theory is always a work in progress, able to dodge refutation by inventing new twists and turns. Each debunking can be construed as disinformation designed to throw truth seekers off the scent, while the conspiracy theorists’ continued failure to blow the lid off the conspiracy merely testifies to the power of their enemy (and the gullibility of the masses). Conspiracy theories aren’t just immune to refutation–they thrive on it. If it looks like a conspiracy, it was a conspiracy. If it doesn’t look like a conspiracy, it was definitely a conspiracy. Evidence against the conspiracy theory becomes evidence of conspiracy.”

The Internet has enabled conspiracy theories to flourish, but they are by no means a product of the electronic age. Conspiracy theories have been around for centuries. In the early nineteenth century the smallpox vaccine was developed–the world’s first vaccine–and no doubt the science behind it scared those whom it was supposed to protect. Suspicions spread as fast as the disease. Who would have believed that a vaccine based on a deliberate inoculation of cowpox was supposed to protect you from contracting smallpox? Widespread doubts spread about the vaccine and its supposed real purposes. A conspiracy was born:

“So vaccine anxiety was a side effect of the very first vaccine, and the symptoms have never quite cleared up. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the long-standing unease about vaccines is how little the arguments have changed over the centuries.”

Vaccine anxiety has evolved into a conspiracy about the alleged causes of autism. All it takes is an article in The Lancet (now disproved) and a celebrity or two to sound off on a talk show and a new conspiracy is born. Having this topic come up in an early Republican debate didn’t help matters either. It just prolonged the disinformation:

“The science is clear: Vaccines do not cause autism. But conspiracy theories erode our trust in science, allowing controversy to linger long after the questions have been settled.”

Brotherton dug deep into the psychology behind the human propensity to believe conspiracy theories. I did not find all the psych talk to be very interesting and it was boring because it was repetitive. As the subtitle suggests, this book is catalogued in the psychology section so I knew what I was getting into, yet fortunately some chapters captivated my attention more than others. People have a need to link facts together by “connecting the dots”. Even though the facts may be unrelated or spaced far apart, our need is to link them somehow in our quest to make sense of them. Conspiracies are formed by stringing together a grotesque necklace of foreign beads, whose only function, ultimately, is that:

“Conspiracy theories spotlight lots of fascinating questions–but they seldom illuminate meaningful answers.”

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